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Ecosystem Functions

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Nutrient Regulation

The role of ecosystems in the transport, storage and recycling of nutrients.


Regulating Functions

How does nutrient regulation contribute to ecosystem service provision?

Fungi recycle organic matter in forest (and other) ecosystems.

Nutrients are essential for life. They are the chemicals that all living things need to live and grow and a healthy ecosystem has a balance of the right amount of nutrients in the right places at the right times. Nutrient regulation is the process of keeping nutrients in balance and occurs through the biological and chemical cycling of nutrients through organisms (e.g. soil biota, fungi) and their environment (soil, water and air). The table below (Table 1) presents the relative magnitude nutrient regulation contributes to different ecosystem services (relative to other ecosystem functions) in SEQ.

The most common nutrients include nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Nitrogen and phosphorus are two important nutrients that exist in a delicate balance. Nutrient regulation contributes to the provision of productive soils by ensuring the right amount of nutrients exist. Food and fibre production and other biological materials (such as wood) that serve as sources of energy in turn depend on this. For human benefit, if the local environment cannot provide nutrients in the necessary quantities, then it needs to be mined to produce these products (such as phosphorus and potassium) or produced (e.g. N from fossil fuels) at significant cost (environmentally, socially and economically).

Nutrient regulation plays a critical role in maintaining water quality. Species and ecosystems that live in or depend on our water or waterways (including people) have tolerance levels to certain nutrients. Nutrient regulation therefore reduces the risk of pest and/or disease outbreaks. Waterways depend on this function to maintain their health, status, their use and enjoyment by local residents and visitors to the region. 



What is the temporal and geographic scale nutrient regulation operates at and services are delivered?

Some nutrients, such as nitrogen, are constantly recycled at short time scales, whereas others such as phosphorus are effectively finite and we are at risk of exhausting cheap and easy supplies (known as peak phosphorus).

Nutrient regulation occurs at both local and global scales. It provides benefits in-situ (such as micro-organisms within a soil profile contributing to productive soils available for growing crops). Floods transport soil and nutrients downslope and deposit these on floodplains resulting in nutrient rich alluvial soils. This provides arable land suitable for agriculture. This transportation of nutrients therefore transmits the impact of strong or weak nutrient regulation in a catchment down to receiving waterways (again contributing to water quality). 

The map to the right shows areas where the function nutrient regulation is expected to occur across SEQ. Data sets supporting the map can be found in the Quick Index. By clicking on the link below the map it will provide a more detailed view.


How do we know if we are degrading, maintaining or improving nutrient regulation in SEQ?


Vegetation in coastal zones and on streambanks filter runoff and reduce nutrient transport between land and waterways.

Links to other publications and websites

Healthy Waterways
DERM - Nutrients Offsets
DERM - Nutrient Trading Program
Wikipedia - Nutrient Cycling

In many ways, waterways reflect the health of our catchments, and so by monitoring water quality we can learn a lot about nutrient regulation in our catchments. In SEQ, the annual Report Card on aquatic ecosystem health provides an invaluable snapshot of the nutrient regulation function of our waterways and helps us identify short-term fluctuations as well as longer-term trends and processes.

In SEQ there are some targeted local monitoring activities in high-value horticultural areas, but SEQ lacks a systematic approach to understanding nutrient regulation functions across our productive landscapes. It is important that we measure the levels of various nutrients themselves (e.g. N, P), as well bioindicators (e.g. seagrass or fish populations) to determine overall ecosystem health and to get a clear picture on how well this ecosystem function is performed.


How do we manage this ecosystem function in SEQ?

In SEQ, there are a number of ways we manage nutrient regulation. Firstly, at the property scale, nutrient regulation is the responsibility of the landholder. This can be achieved through improved land management practices that seek to retain soil and vegetation (e.g. on farm land with intensive fertiliser and pesticide application). Secondly, we use development controls to protect sites where intensive nutrient regulation occurs such as along riparian corridors, mangroves, seagrass meadows and rainforests.

Thirdly, the release of nutrients into the environment, such as discharges from industry (e.g. waste water treatment plants), is regulated through the Environmental Protection Act 1994 by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, with some powers devolved to local government. The Sustainable Planning Act 2009 also regulates urban development and land use planning activities so as to minimise the generation and release of nutrients (for example, by using water sensitive urban design). The Sustainable Planning Act 2009 is managed by the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, though it is principally implemented by local government. 

Looking forward, it is likely we will see market based instruments such as nutrient trading emerge in the near future to ensure we reduce nutrient discharges in the most cost-effective way. There is potential to develop holistic approaches that integrate environmental health with landscape productivity. This approach could see us harvest nutrients from our wastes and, rather than release them into our waterways where they create problems, use them on our agricultural lands where they are a valuable resource. This approach would contribute to the function of nutrient regulation by transporting, storing and recycling nutrients.